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'We still have work to do': Stories of UNC's Black Pioneers

UNC first-year Ariyan Byrd poses outside the Center for the Study of the American South in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Center was founded by UNC in 1992 to honor and explore the history and diverse cultures of the South.

For Jimmy Barnes, one of the first Black students to graduate from UNC, his time at the University could best be described as solely educational. Social life for Black students at UNC, he said, was nonexistent. 

Barnes is part of a group of UNC alumni known as Black Pioneers — the first Black graduates who matriculated at UNC from 1952 to 1972.

When a court order in 1951 ordered the UNC School of Law to admit Black students, Harvey Beech, James Lassiter, J. Kenneth Lee, Floyd McKissick and James Robert Walker became the first of many pioneers. Four years later, the University began accepting Black undergraduate students, because of a ruling from federal courts. 

Beginning in 2015, the Southern Oral History Program interviewed some of the pioneers about their experiences as students at the University. 

The oral histories and transcripts, now published online, document the lived experiences many Black students faced during the early period of integration at UNC. 

Since conducting these oral histories, the program has published 15 of the transcripts online. In 2016, a performance adaptation of the interviews called The Black Pioneers Project was performed in the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History.

"These are folks who have helped UNC achieve its stated mission and have not often been recognized for doing so. And because they struggled with roadblocks and impediments due to racism in different moments, they did so often as an uphill battle,” Renée Alexander Craft, the interim director of program, said. “So the University needs to be committed to recognizing their contributions.”

Barnes, a 1968 UNC School of Pharmacy graduate and Greensboro native, said typical UNC social events, like football games were not appealing due to racist songs that would be played.

“Every weekend I could, I would go to one of the historically Black universities back then, but that was my focus,” Barnes said in his oral history. “As far as during the week, the time to come study, I had to be here, and that’s where I was.”

Edith Hubbard started college in 1962 at Bennett College, a historically Black university in Greensboro, and later transferred to UNC. She grew up in Durham and said in her oral history that racism was prevalent there, but she grew up sheltered and oblivious to it. 

This wasn’t the case at UNC. Hubbard said in her oral history that at times when she would sit at a table in Lenoir Dining Hall, people at adjoining tables would move away from her because of her race.

She said in her oral history that she’s impressed by the current spaces for students of color on campus.

“Now, you look at the campus, and it’s beautiful to see Black students, white students, Asian students, Indian students, everybody together,” Hubbard said. “There is no hostility or animosity.”

Current UNC first-year Ariyan Byrd said she feels represented in spaces such as the SPARK program, which is a 2-day retreat aimed at supporting and empowering first-year and transfer UNC students who are women of underrepresented racial or ethnic backgrounds.

Still, Byrd said she feels academically disadvantaged at UNC because of her race.

“As a Black girl on campus, I do feel as if I have to prove myself just a little bit harder just to be in the same spaces,” she said. “I'm grateful to be here and [for] the resources and the possibilities of the people who have paved the way before me, but I do feel as if the goalposts may be moved a bit further considering my position.”

Some Pioneers have expressed concerns about persisting racism on campus, like alumni Henry Foust, who attended UNC in the early 1970s.

“Some of us, our alumni group are amazed that they’re still having issues at Carolina,” he said in his oral history. “We’re like, ‘Folks, this has been forty years. There are some things that should have been figured out by now. This is ridiculous. The kids here are still going through some of the same stuff that we went through.’”

Alexander Craft said she thinks that there are persisting issues for the University to address to dismantle systemic racism. She said the University Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward, which educates and provides policy recommendations on UNC’s history with race, is an example of taking a step in the right direction.

The Commission was charged by former Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz in February 2020 to provide recommendations to the chancellor on how to educate and engage with the University’s racist history and foundations. Members include UNC faculty members, program directors, researchers and students.

As the country’s first public university, she said UNC has a mission to act as a leader in academics and how to address inequity.

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“We have the unique opportunity to build better out loud in a way that the broader public and other public institutions can benefit from,” Alexander Craft said. “I think we still have work to do to achieve that mission.”

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